Saturday, September 24, 2011

Review: The Faith of Leap: Embracing a Theology of Risk, Adventure & Courage, Michael Frost & Alan Hirsch, Baker, 2011

  • ‘You tried your best, and you failed. The lesson is, never try’ (Homer Simpson)
  • The Devil in The Brothers Karamazov: ‘Everything would be transformed into a religious service: it would be holy, but a little dull’
  • Title of Philip Yancey best-seller: Church: Why Bother?
  • ‘Most men die at 27; we just bury them at 72’ (Mark Twain)
  • ‘Don’t just sit there, do something!’ 

I remember quite vividly the first time I spoke at the South Melbourne Restoration Community, a church noted for reaching out to people on the margins. There was a scruffy short guy dressed in faded jeans organizing things at the front, who I was told was the pastor – Alan Hirsch. On another occasion I was privileged to spend a weekend with that community.

And I’d rank Mike Frost as one of the best communicators I’ve ever heard. His book Jesus the Fool, recently re-issued by Urban Neighbours of Hope, is a classic.

The Faith of Leap is their latest offering. It doesn’t say anything substantially more than they’d written in their previous excellent collaborative ventures (especially The Shaping of Things to Come), except for this: if we’re to following Jesus in terms of mission there’ll be an adventurous/heroic/risk-taking dimension to that endeavour. 

Their basic general thesis: a genuinely missional church is simply any church that organizes itself around the mission of God in this world. It’s not ‘attractional’ churches begging people to come (‘in-drag’). The church is the product of the Missio Dei - the missionary activity of God – not the producer of it. ‘The church is therefore defined by its mission and not the other way around.’ 

But how do we do it? Think of Abraham, Moses, the prophets, Jesus (‘whoever will save their life will lose it; whoever loses their life for me will find it’), the disciples who left their secular jobs to follow their Lord, Paul, Francis, Galileo, Luther, Wesley, Booth, Gandhi, Martin Luther King... what did they all have in common? Simple: they were risk-takers. Machiavelli was not far wrong: ‘Nothing is more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than achieving a new order of things.’ 

But it’s ironic that the church of the crucified Christ – especially in the West – has become risk-averse, preoccupied with the safety of predictable worship, and ministries of Word, sacrament and pastoral care to serve the ‘needs’ of their members. Think about this for example: in what other community context can someone offer a monologue about something, and - in the vast majority of church services - no one publicly asks questions? In terms of any reputable pedagogical theory, that’s odd! It’s OK for churches to be ‘safe places’, ‘but the safety-obsessed church lacks the inner dynamic to foster profound missional impact...’    

Hirst and Frost’s concerns are based on William Temple’s famous dictum: ‘The church is the only society in the world that exists for the benefit of its non-members’.  That doesn’t mean churches won’t have their ‘liturgies’. From the seminal work of anthropologist Victor Turner, who spent much of his life studying rites of passage among African people groups, this lesson is underlined: ‘Never underestimate the power of ritual and symbol in the formation of culture.’ But the essence of such initiation rites is to produce leaders who are ‘wild at heart’(Eldridge).  

The book is replete with ideas/quotes from the best missiologists - like Roland Allen (forecaster of the phenomena of missionless churches and churchless missions), Lesslie Newbigin, David Bosch, et. al; and the most perceptive modern commentators on the church – like Richard Rohr (especially the wisdom of traditional cultures about initiating boys into men: how? ‘By encouraging the boys to take risks!’), and Brian McLaren. And we have a plethora of wisdom from other modern commentators like Wendell Berry, management guru Peter Drucker (‘People who don’t take risks make about two big mistakes a year; people whodo take risks make about two big mistakes a year’), Robert Bly and many others.  

And then there are creative notions like Prospect Theory (‘people aren’t generally risk averse; they are loss averse’).

Santayana wrote: ‘We don’t know who discovered water, but we know it wasn’t fish’. Immersed in sameness and predictability, churches loses their missional vision; or, to use other metaphors, ‘by taking our eyes off the ball, or anxiously focusing on technique, orderly worship, political correctness, or whatever, we not only lose the focus, we also miss the point of what it is all about’. 

Mike’s and Alan’s knowledge of contemporary culture – especially movies – is phenomenal. They employ ‘with-it’ language (like ‘we have been whacked out by the dreaded opiate of “religion”’). And I like the fact that these guys practise what they preach. As part of his mission-to-the-marginalized Alan started up a Christian cafe, which fell in a heap and lost a lot of money (he talks honestly here about that experiment). But at least he was prepared to take a risk! Mike not only teaches missiology in a Baptist seminary, he founded a missional community in Manly, Sydney – smallboatbigsea (ever heard of a ‘church’ with a name like that?), launched a city Street Pastors ministry, and helped establish a microfinancing agency, linking Manly with an impoverished Indonesian village. 

Their last word is from Jack London: 

I would rather be ashes than dust!
I would rather that my spark should burn out in a brilliant
   Blaze than it be stifled by dry rot.
I would rather be a superb meteor, every atom of me in magnificent
   Glow, than a sleepy and permanent planet.
Our proper function is to live, not exist.
I shall not waste my days in trying to prolong them.
I shall use my time.

Rowland Croucher
September 2011

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